An Analysis of Julia Alvarez's "In the Time of the Butterflies" and the Need to Learn from History
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 26,000 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.
In the modern world it is considered fashionable to dispense with one's memories and foundations in favor of a "radical" new ideological trend disjoint from all experience and historical lessons. However, this is a pitfall for numerous persons under the guise of refuge. While they perceive themselves to have parted with the perils of the past by knowing nothing of them, in reality such ignorance renders them significantly more vulnerable.
In In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez articulates a proper attitude in regard to times gone by, suggesting that security, freedom, and advancement in one's future necessitate a constant remembrance of one's past. She transmits this message through the statements of her characters, also delving into the malice of dictatorial regimes seeking to prevent an understanding of one's past and the incapacitating self-destruction experienced by people afflicted with an oblivious mindset.
One of the lessons reaped from Dedé Mirabal's experience living with her sisters under the oppressive dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo concerns the key of remembrance of and education from a detrimental past. This view is expressed by her in the year 1994, as she reminisces to her friend Olga about the impacts of her sisters' struggle against totalitarianism and her role as the "oracle" of their story. "I'm not stuck in the past; I've just brought it with me into the present. And the problem is not enough of us have done that. What is that thing the gringos say, if you don't study your history you are going to repeat it?" (313).
Dedé has undergone the transition from a period of constant terror and deprivation to one of modernization and prosperity. Yet she does not act foolishly by discarding the lessons of her grim early days and thus rendering herself vulnerable to the re-emergence of a similarly tyrannical government. By spreading the history of the Mirabal sisters Dedé attempts to present her audiences with an analysis of what factors constitute despotism, how despots obtain and maintain power, how despots silence dissent, and, most importantly, how despots induce an internal shift toward isolation, sacrifice, and self-loathing within their underlings.
This mindset places in sharp contrast Dedé's outlook on the proper mode of behavior with that of the present Dominican culture, which, having in its majority emerged following Trujillo's assassination, is unaware of the tremendous risks and acts of staunch defiance which were required to free them from bondage. Dedé favors the prosperity of modern days and believes it to bear a positive effect on the young through the opportunities, courage, and self-esteem that they receive. However, she recognizes that it is essential to simultaneously retain that ideological foundation which had spawned the prosperity in the first place, a belief in liberty and in the individual as of the utmost value and the wickedness of regimes which seek to deprive men of their self-assertiveness and productivity.
Only stories of earlier times, when such forces had undergone intense and bloody conflict within the Dominican Republic, can genuinely fill the experiential void of the new generations. That is why Dedé never loses cognizance of her memory of her sisters' lives as well as her own; only using such tools can the horrors be bypassed. On a broader philosophical level, Julia Alvarez is demonstrating a conviction that all progress, in material and intellectual realms alike, is an extrapolation upon roots already possessed. The lifestyle of the new Dominican generation is described. "[Minou] keeps a steady patter through the open window, catching me up on her life since we last talked. The new line of play clothes she designed for her store in the capital; the course she is teaching at the university onand politics; Jacqueline's... remodeling of her penthouse; Manolito, busy with his agricultural projects-- all of them smart young men and women making good money. They aren't like us, I think. They knew almost from the start they had to take on the world" (314).
Only following liberation from the Trujillo regime were avenues of immense material development accessible to Minerva's children, whereas their mother had been denied even the right to practice law. Yet, by forgetting their past, the prosperous modern generation fails to recognize the traits of a free society which enable such pathways to success and the lack of such opportunities in a statist tyranny. The movement for liberty in which the Mirabal sisters had partaken rendered possible such an outlook on life, one of pride and grand ambitions, wherein one's only limits are one's own capacity and willingness to think and create, and it is not a societal norm to restrict, censor, and degrade. That mindset and its resulting prosperity would not have been attainable under a statist dictatorship.
But how can the new generation prevent another lapse into dictatorship if they dissociate themselves from remembering the atrocities and aspiration-stifling committed by a totalitarian regime before they were born? Times become ripe for autocracies to return when people cease to direct their attention toward the characteristics which comprise the particular poison and its antidote. A mere "live for today" attitude, one of ignorance and forgetfulness, is not a sign of a modern conscience, but rather of a hopeless and stagnant one, which will inevitably result in a lapse back into a Trujillo-style quasi-monarchical primitivism. That is why arbitrary "paradigm hopping" is not advised by Dedé and Alvarez, who realize that the edifice of progress can only emerge upon a sturdy base, and that the lessons of the past do not conflict with the ambitions of the present, but rather supplement and enhance them.
It was under the Trujillo regime that the self-deluding mindset of dissociating oneself from the facts and lessons of the past was most firmly rooted. The dictator mandates, for example, that his portrait be placed in every home alongside religious icons, gradually drawing within the victims' minds a subconscious parallel between himself and divinity, an illusion that stunts the beholders' analytical faculties to fully identify with or direct their attention toward Trujillo's atrocities. Patria discusses her own susceptibility to such a deception. "I had heard, but I had not believed. Snug in my heart, fondling my pearl, I had ignored their cries of desolation. How could our loving, all-powerful Father allow us to suffer so? I looked up, challenging Him. And the two faces had merged!" (53).
The psychological impact of the Trujillo/God duo is overbearing on Patria and causes her to lapse into a deceptively blissful and willful ignorance of the past as irrelevant to the deeds of a man whom it is difficult to imagine as anything but a magnanimous and potent guardian of his people. With the evils swiftly forgotten and unopposed, there exists absolutely no barrier to their perpetuation. And what progress can emerge from a bloodbath of censorship and submission? Patria herself is permanently hindered by this psychological block when, even following her affiliation with the Fourteenth of July Movement, she prays to a portrait of Trujillo for her son Nelson's release from imprisonment, acknowledging her impotence before him through her pleas. She grovels before evil in hopes that evil will accede to her desires on its own accord, which treatment will never occur in regard to one still a member of the good. Only through transformation into evil's lackey can favors be coaxed out of a dictatorship. But Patria does not in this situation extract lessons from the Fourteenth of July and previous acts of carnage ordered by Trujillo. She does not take cognizance of Trujillo's repeatedly manifested evil and still considers a compromise, or a life in perpetual slavery and terror, to be desirable. She conforms to the status quo instead of seeking to amend it. A brighter future is inaccessible to her whenever she does not properly deliberate over the past.
It is essential to note that the Trujillo regime induces this mindset precisely because it seeks to avert progress. El Jefe requires a primitive form of despotism to extort the commodities and labor of others, thriving as the ultimate parasite of the Dominican Republic. Any progress toward political freedom as well as financial and technological prosperity loosens the stranglehold by which he reigns. A comfortable slave with opportunities in store ceases to be a slave and becomes an autonomous competitor with the regime. To be comfortable and to possess opportunities necessitates a freedom from the submissive mistakes men who are ignorant of their past commonly repeat.
Yet when the parasites are portrayed as gods, when death is the reward of anyone who dares speak (with ample warrant) the truth that Trujillo is not a saintly father-figure but a murderer having committed repeated infractions against human life, the avenue to individualism and autonomy is lost. That is why Trujillo is interested in preventing knowledge of his wicked deeds from spreading by any means necessary. Factors which serve to fulfill this are the extensive laudation Trujillo receives in official Dominican textbooks, the requirement of constant mention of his "benevolence" in all public speeches and performances, and the "citizenship" classes required for students in Dominican schools. Trujillo understands that thinking men will not tolerate him with exposure to his atrocities; therefore he creates an atmosphere that suffocates both thought and exposure. That is why censorship of the past is an inevitable companion to a totalitarian regime.
The mentality of ignorance in regard to the past can carry as its ultimate consequence only death for its possessor. Minerva presents a keen metaphor: "As the road darkened, the beams of our headlights filled with hundreds of blinded moths. Where they the windshield, they left blurry marks, until it seemed like I was looking at the world through a curtain of tears" (29). The moths are the Dominican populace, aimlessly fluttering about, unable to work efficiently (i. e. for their own gain and using the intellectual aspects of their minds) and not directing their attention out toward the behemoth of a vehicle sweeping them out of its path (Trujillo).
Trujillo's ex-commanding officer and the ex-president of the Dominican Republic remain ignorant of El Jefe's motives and the threat posed by him. They confide in him, share their secrets with him, and grant him crucial posts within their organizations. Trujillo betrays his adulterous general to a vengeful man and his unpopular president to a violent crowd, and neither of the victims suspect the offense until the blow is struck. The president neglects to thoroughly examine the situation which results in the general's death and Trujillo's elevation; he does not direct himself to ponder over such a peculiar alternation in the hierarchy of power. He pays for it with his own office and nearly his life.
The men left behind in the Dominican Republic are not so lucky. The deaths of those three Mirabal sisters who never entirely manage to extinguish the tendency of mental blocking within them serve as testimony to this fact. Minerva receives a note of caution from the attendant Jorge Almonte warning her to "avoid the pass." Minerva recounts what she would undertake in response. "My hand shook. I would not tell the others. It could only make things worse, and Mate's asthma had just begun to calm down" (291).
Minerva neglects to heed a warning from her past. It is unknown whether Almonte is aware of the particular plot against the Mirabal sisters or whether he merely judges the pass to be a fitting place for an ambush from similar past experiences. In either situation, Almonte knows his history; he identifies the customary treachery of the Trujillo regime and the underhanded means of assassination it would employ to rid itself of seemingly harmless "dissenters". Almonte derives from his analysis precautionary words for the future, which Minerva chooses to ignore from a transient and illusory bliss. Had she informed her sisters, it would have exposed them all to the harsh facts of reality, but it would have planted into them a desire to avoid such an undesirable collision with El Jefe's henchmen. The Mirabal sisters could have gained the opportunity to be more prudent with their planning.
Even had Mate experienced a resurgence of her asthma, such would remain a far less significant detriment to her than is the death that she does undergo. Almonte's warning indeed does prove to correlate with reality as the Mirabal sisters' lives are terminated during their drive through the pass. How many more thousands of Dominicans perish during Trujillo's reign, all ignorant and hesitant to direct their attention toward "uncomfortable" matters, until they become labeled subversives by Trujillo's spy network one day and exterminated during the night? What defense do they possess against a foe whose existence they cannot fathom? If they had taken the time to, at least within their minds, fully grasp the true extent of El Jefe's brutal carnage, they might have at least formed a strong organized resistance and prepared themselves to resist their individual oppression, which would inevitably be inflicted upon them given the nature of Trujillo's rule.
A scant few recognize the truth due to their courageous insight and resolve to dispel the illusions. They form the crux of the Fourteenth of July Movement, but, alas, they are insufficient in number. Too many fall prey to the regime's seductive slavery and stand at the side lines while the forward-thinking rebels are imprisoned, broken, and disposed of in a cowardly, underhanded fashion, as had occurred during the ambush of the Mirabal sisters. Fortunately, the efforts of those few, despite the great costs incurred by the movement from the overbearing odds and forces stacked against them, result in an eventual regime change and a freer, more prosperous society. Truth triumphs because the audacious few bother to learn from their past in order not to repeat it but forge a new, more functional order. But how are those others who continue to linger in ignorant "bliss" in any manner distinguishable from the moths splattered across the windshield without hope of escape? Nothing separates the two. Neither has ideological roots. Neither has a past to refer to for guidance. Death becomes their only option.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez emphasizes that an edifice without a foundation will crumble, as will a society which does not refer to the lessons of its past for assistance and data. Only by knowing what practices to avoid can we not repeat the course of history and at last create a secure haven for individual rights and free expression. Conservatism has been frequently associated with stagnation and lack of modernity, but it is in reality the only antidote to stale, decaying primitivism. On the other hand, a society where unrelated dominant ideological systems come and go without contributing to each other or leaving a trace is doomed to the same oblivion which the past holds within the minds of its members. Alvarez's lessons can be applied to history on a national or global scale, but also to the experiences of individual lives, such as those of Dedé and, ultimately, our own. The story of our own lives needs to become a waypoint for our future decisions, which, through the mistakes and adversity we encounter, will enable us to avoid further instances thereof, but also cause us to replicate actions with advantageous outcomes and to prosper from them.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently
the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until
Yahoo! closed this venue in 2014. Mr. Stolyarov held the highest Clout
Level (10) possible on the Yahoo! Contributor Network and was one of its
Page View Millionaires, with over 3,175,000 views. Mr. Stolyarov’s
selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.
Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).
Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.